Turning Failure Into Fuel: Leading Your Direct Reports When Things Go Wrong | Ep 253

COGE 253 | Failure


Failure isn’t the end; it’s your pathway to progress. Embrace it, learn from it, and let it fuel your journey towards success. In this compelling episode, host Eric Anderton welcomes empathic keynote speaker, writer, and coach Erin Thorpe. Today, Erin brings a refreshing perspective on how to navigate failure, both as a leader and as a team member. She explores how embracing failure as part of the learning process is not only essential but also an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Throughout the episode, Eric expounds several key points such as normalizing failure, embracing emotions, developing empathy, and ensuring leadership growth. If you’re looking to transform failure into a stepping stone towards success, this episode is a must-listen. Tune in now and learn how to turn failure into fuel for your personal and professional growth!

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Turning Failure Into Fuel: Leading Your Direct Reports When Things Go Wrong

Failure is a fact of life. You fail. I fail. We all fail. It’s how we handle it. That is the most important. That is the topic of this conversation on the show with my guest, Erin Thorp. She’s back on the show because she has insights that will help you to run your company more effectively. Specifically, you’re the leader of your construction company. One of your direct reports has a failure, whether that failure is because of technical skill, relational, or personal issues. You have to know how to navigate those failures effectively and that’s what this discussion is all about. Enjoy my conversation with Erin. Take notes. It’ll help you to run your company much more effectively. Thank you for reading.

Erin, welcome to the show.Thanks, Eric. It’s great to be back.

I’d like to discuss the issue of failure from the perspective of someone who is leading a construction company. They have a variety of people reporting to them. In our lives, each one of us has issues, challenges, difficulties, and failures occur. I’d like to dive into how a leader should handle failures in their company, the failure of the people who report to them in terms of their performance, character, and behavior. First, I’d like to ask you a question. What is the biggest mistake that leaders make when they’re handling or dealing with people in their organization who have failed in some way?

I talk a lot about empathy. One of the biggest mistakes is that we don’t lead with empathy when someone has failed. We don’t take a pause and try to understand what this might be like from that person’s perspective. I genuinely believe, and it has been my experience, that very few people that I have come across in my career and consulting business set out to fail or harm the company. What I mean by that is that they don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How can I screw things up today? How can I blow this apart or not show up?”

That’s not the orientation that people are showing up to work with. They’re showing up wanting to do their best, trying to bring everything they’ve got to the table and sometimes that does fall short. Sometimes they fail. There’s a variety of reasons why that can happen. It can be at the individual, team, or company level. There are all kinds of reasons why that might happen.

As leaders, when we’re first presented with like, “Here’s the situation. This person or team has failed,” if we don’t take a pause and go, “How do I want to intentionally influence the outcome of this situation and what am I trying to get to on the other side,” we can get caught up in our default approach, which will be more fear-based and shame-based. We will come down hard on these people without understanding what was going on and what led to the failure. Curiosity, empathy, and leaning into that tough conversation so a little bit of courage is required to navigate these situations.

You use the word empathy. Just so we’re clear, give me your definition of empathy.

It’s acknowledging and understanding someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We don’t have to agree with them. It’s not an agreement. That’s where a lot of leaders get caught up. They think, “If I engage in this conversation to understand your perspective, I have to agree with it. When I don’t agree with it, we start the battle between right and wrong.” The first part of this whole situation, if we’re dealing with a failure of any kind, is to try to get in, understand, and acknowledge their thoughts, feelings, what was going through their head, and what led them to make the decisions that they made. Without making it right or wrong, it’s acknowledgment and understanding.

Let’s assume someone’s failed and you’re in a place of leadership. What are some questions that you can lead with that help you to identify the root cause of the failure and begin to show that empathy that you’re describing?

I always coach my leaders around what and how questions. It might look like, “Walk me through your decision-making process. What was going on? What were the circumstances? What were the pressures you were dealing with? How was the team showing up? How was the client or consultant?” Whatever the context of the issue is, you might even need to ask, “What external factors were influencing this situation?”

We’re all fighting an inner battle. We’ve all got stuff going on in our lives personally with kids, partners, finances, the world economy, our investments, our retirement, the house, and all the things, even the weather. I live in a place where there were towns decimated in the summer by forest fires. That’s going to influence how people show up at work. You may need to understand what are these external factors or pressures that this person is dealing with. It’s not to make them right or wrong but simply to understand where this person was. Some of those were good what and how questions to start to explore the context of where they were at.

One of the toughest challenges that people have in life is admitting their failures. We don’t like to do that either because we’re proud or fearful so that keeps us from moving on from the failures or learning from them in a productive way. Let’s say I’m a leader and I’m in a conversation with someone. We’re talking about a particular failure that’s occurred. Maybe it’s on a project with a schedule, client, or coordination issue, whatever the case may be.

All of those exist.

I’m getting a sense that someone is not being straightforward with me. How do I address that? How do I get people to open up?

The first thing that comes to mind is there has to be a foundation of trust between the leader and the team member because, without vulnerability-based trust, it’s going to be very difficult for somebody to say, “I need help,” or raise their hand. We do that by everyday little interactions between our teams. It’s one of those things that you need the most in those moments that you can’t build it. You need trust as you’re coming into these failure conversations.

If you haven’t been working on that when times are good, it’s going to be the gap in the relationship that’s going to prevent you from having the right conversation when times are not so good. As leaders, we constantly need to be focused on what is the level of trust and how are we doing by putting deposits in the trust bank. Are we checking in with our teams? Are we showing that we care? Are we following through on our commitments? Are we showing that we’re believable, dependable, and behaving in trustworthy ways all the time? That’s the first piece.

COGE 253 | Failure
Failure: As leaders, we constantly need to be focused on what is the level of trust and how we are doing by putting deposits in the trust bank.


I’m going to answer this question assuming that trust is there between you and a team member as a leader. You’re sitting across the table from this person, digging in, and asking some questions. You’ve got the spidey sense that says, “There’s something somebody’s not telling me. They’re trying to hide something maybe because they don’t want to admit that they’ve missed something or that they see something coming.” This only works if you’ve got trust but I might ask a question like, “What are you not telling me? What are you afraid to tell me at this moment? What do you see coming that keeps you up at night?” That’s the conversation I want to have.

You might have to share something personal from your career around a time when you saw something coming and you didn’t alert somebody and it had some negative impacts on the project or the team. Give them context to be able to say, “I relate. I know where you’re coming from because this is the only way I can support you as if we’re talking about the thing that keeps you up at night.” I’ve used that exact question like, “What is keeping you up at night?” There’s usually something.

What do leaders do to undermine the trust of the people who report to them?

The biggest behavior that I see and have experienced is we say one thing and do another. Let’s use a very hot topic, which is the work-from-home policy. Everybody’s talking about it. We have companies clawing people back. We have people leaving because they want flexibility. If you, as a company, say, “We do not have a work-from-home policy. Everyone needs to be in the office,” if you have to take a sick day, your kids at home are sick, or you’ve got a doctor’s appointment, it’s a PTO or a sick day. This is the policy. It’s in black and white. We’ve signed it, circulated it, and taught on it.

As a leader, I get a kid who’s homesick one day. I choose to work from home. Right there, my team is like, “What in the actual is happening here? You told me that I couldn’t do that but you’re doing it. Why do the rules not apply to you?” That’s very simple. I deal with this all the time. One of the things that I experienced in my career and I see as we rise through the ranks in a company, there’s more trust in our ability to deliver. We get this unspoken amount of flexibility.

We can go to a doctor’s appointment, work from home if we need to, or take a call from our car. No one’s watching our desk going, “Were you there from 8:30 to 4:30 today?” We do that on the front line. We timewatch and time clock. The policy either needs to be written in a way that you incrementally gradually grant more flexibility or we have to enforce that we have to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s one situation. The underlying premise is that as leaders, if we’re not doing what we say we’re going to do, trust is broken.

As leaders, if we're not doing what we say we're going to do, trust is broken. Share on X

One of the hidden challenges that someone has when they get into a place of leadership is this sense of, “That somehow gives me permission for a wider latitude of behavior that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t in that role of leadership.” It’s often unsaid but it does undermine our credibility. Even if others don’t necessarily notice, it undermines your integrity. You know it in yourself.

That would be the number one thing that I see leaders doing. The second thing that I see leaders doing that undermines trust, especially in our industry of construction engineering, like technical, predominantly historically masculine industries, is this element of caring. It’s demonstrating like, “I care about you as a human being.”

I’m not talking about, “We don’t need to lay on the couch and have a therapy session but did you even ask how my weekend was? Did you stop to say, ‘How are the kids? Did the soccer tournament go okay? Did you go to the football game on the weekend?’ It’s some form of demonstration that I care about you as a human being.” We tend to jump right to the business. The research has proven that this demonstration of caring and connecting at a human level is a huge component of trust.

Demonstration of caring and connecting at a human level is a huge component of trust. Share on X

There are two things there. Saying one thing and doing another and intentionally having that human connection with people. There are two things we do when we fail. We cover it up or shift the blame like, “It’s not my fault. It’s their fault.” In construction, that can often be very challenging because construction is complex and it involves a lot of people. I could be talking to my project manager and say, “Why is this project going south?” He says to me, “Go talk to the superintendent. They’re the ones screwing it up.” What does a leader do in that situation?

As leaders, recognizing that behavior to cover it up or shift blame is the individual’s way of protecting themselves. The human brain is designed to keep the individual safe. That’s its primary function. Not thriving but surviving. That behavior of covering it up and hiding or shifting blame and deflecting is the brain’s way of protecting that individual and trying to keep that individual safe.

As leaders, if we see that behavior, the first thing to do before you keep going on the issue is to say, “Project manager, your job isn’t at risk. You are safe. I want to understand what’s happening here so we can all support each other to get through the other side and get the outcome that we want. What’s going on? I don’t want you to blame someone else. You don’t need to hide and protect. You’re okay. Let’s have a real conversation. What do we see happening? Where do we see opportunities to improve deflect? What are you struggling with? What’s keeping you up at night? Let’s have that conversation.”

As leaders, if you can start to see that behavior, then you know that team member is already not feeling safe. If they’re not feeling safe, they’re going to continue down that path of hiding and hoping for the best, which may not work out or they’re going to continue to shift blame, which is going to create wedges and divides in the team, and then the team can’t function. They will not achieve their outcomes.

What popped into my mind when you were talking there is a scene from The Godfather. The scene is where Michael has finished killing all the other heads of the families. He’s talking to Carlo, his brother-in-law. He’s telling Carlo, “Tell me the truth and what happened. You’re safe.” Carlo goes, “I did betray you.” Five minutes later, Carlo is dead. The reason I bring that up is because this is one of the major issues that happens when failure occurs.

There’s this uncertainty on the part of the person who is a subordinate person or the report person, “What is my leader thinking? What is the situation here?” Sometimes what happens is that when a failure is being addressed, maybe the leader goes in and they’re not quite sure what’s happened so they don’t know what the outcome is going to be but then having that statement, “Your job is not at risk,” or something like that, how should a leader go into a conversation to be able to open it up with a person right from the start so that what’s at stake is clearly defined?

This goes back to doing what we say we’re going to do. If we say you’re safe, we can’t turn around and then fire you. We can’t have a history of saying, “Everyone’s safe. We’re a family. This is great,” but then we turn around two weeks later, go mass layoffs, and get rid of people. That statement of, “We have psychological safety here,” and whatever that is, only works if you have been consistent in your word and action.

That’s the thing leaders need to pay attention to because their actions are speaking louder than their words. That’s what the team members are paying attention to. If you have a history as a leader of losing your marbles, blowing a temper stack, and firing people on the spot, your team will not tell you what’s going on. They’re going to hide and protect as long as they can because they know or anticipate how you’re going to behave.

If you have a history as a leader of losing your marbles and blowing a temper stack and firing people on the spot, your team will not tell you what's going on. Share on X

It comes back to, as leaders, you have to pay attention to your behavior and what is that telling your team. If there is something at stake like, “This project is going sideways. We’re losing too much money. If we can’t turn this around, then we’re probably going to have to look at making a personnel change,” as leaders, we have to be willing to lay that on the table so people know what they’re dealing with.

At what point do we state what’s at stake as a leader? I’m having this conversation. There’s been an issue and a failure. Do I go right in and say, “Your job’s not at stake,” to open up the playing field? How do I handle that?

My orientation is I will give 1 or maybe 2 chances. Before having the same conversation 3 times in a row, we’re probably having a different conversation around like, “Your behavior is not changing. You’re in the wrong seat on the bus or maybe even the wrong bus.” I encourage leaders to operate from this place of assuming positive intent until they’ve been proven otherwise.

The first offense or sign of failure is, “Tell me what’s going on. Let’s explore what’s happening. Give me the whole good so I can see where I might be able to support you. Let’s figure that out.” You’re going to have some actions come out of that meeting. We’re going to have different conversations, learn some skills, or whatever that might look like. If in a few weeks or months, depending on the timeline or days we’re seeing the same behavior from that person, we’re going to have one more frank conversation about the change that’s required like, “You’re either changing or you’re going to be changed.”

You’re making that clear in the conversation.

Right up front because people need to know where they stand. This is the other thing leaders need to be aware of. “Are you saying that this person is bad or their behavior isn’t at the expected level?” If I go into a conversation and say, “You’re terrible at this job. You can’t do it,” that’s going to be hard for that person to get on board with the change that I need. I go into the conversation, do the exploring, understand the perspective, and then say, “I can see all the forces at play here.”

“Your behavior and the things you say and do is not at the expected level yet. I expect that you’re calling that trade the minute there’s a sign of them not showing up. I’m expecting that you’re putting people on notice when they need to be put on notice. I’m expecting that you’ll be communicating with the owner about changes within five days or whatever the contractual arrangement is. These are the levels of expected behaviors that I’m looking for. Here’s your chance to rise.” You watch, “Is the behavior changing?” People will tell you very quickly through their behavior, whether they’re on board with that or not.

I think of failure in terms of root causes and often there’s a presenting problem or apparent issue but it’s being driven by something deeper. Perhaps it’s a positional fit or an issue of competency. Perhaps I’ve taken a very good project manager and promoted them to project executive. They’re comfortable building a project but they’re not comfortable leading a team of people. The next one would be a team fit. Let’s say in my executive team, and this happens many times, I have two people who are technically competent and also have strong relationships with people who report to them but they don’t have a strong interpersonal relationship. There’s a lack of a fit there.

There’s a cultural fit. Let’s say this person is technically competent for the position that they’re in but they’re not a cultural fit for the organization. I’ll give you an example. I have one of my clients and the purpose of their business is to crush the competition. That’s their culture. They’re going to show up every day. What that means practically is if you’re a PM, you’re going to show up at 6:00 and leave at 5:000. You’re going to put in your eleven hours every day and that’s the expectation.

The fourth one is I’m going to call it personal/moral failure. In other words, a failure that is perhaps outside of the business but is impacting the business. As a leader, when something is not working, a project isn’t profitable, or there are issues in my business, it can be a combination of all those kinds of things. How do I begin to tease out the root cause of the issue so that I can be more effective in trying to solve it?

There are lots of parts to it. We’ll hit one on one. The starting place for a leader is to go through that checklist that you’ve laid out, “Does this person have these skills and have we supported them in building the competencies to not just survive but to thrive in the role that we have given them?” If we’ve promoted an individual contributor into a project manager or a project manager into a project executive, it’s a very different skillset.

We do this all the time in our industry where we take the best individual performer and go, “You’re doing a good job. Go lead this multimillion-dollar project and this team.” They have no interpersonal skills. They don’t know how to build trust or have tough conversations. They don’t like dealing with emotions. People are messy. They put their heads down and focus on spreadsheets and schedules. The team falls apart.

Checklist Item 1) As a leader, if I’m trying to diagnose this situation, and that’s what I would call it, a diagnosis, did we support this person in developing the competencies that are required for this new job, not just relying on their old competencies which made them successful in the old job? The team fit, we got to look at that. Especially after COVID, it was interesting because people still managed to keep companies open and get projects done during COVID but it came at a great expense of the team dynamic and people’s mental health and sometimes their physical health. We were in front of these computer screens all day long.

There needs to be this real focus on, “What are we doing to support the team to come together as well? Are we checking for fit? Are we doing things, promoting things, and supporting relationship-building outside of sending emails and having team chats? What are we doing to promote relationship building?” Culture is an interesting one because it’s been my experience in my career. The companies that I’ve worked for had very strong cultures and defined ways of being.

COGE 253 | Failure
Failure: There needs to be this real focus on what are leaders doing to support the team to come together.


People who didn’t fit that culture took themselves out. They self-selected very quickly. The people who loved it were like lifers. We drank the Kool-Aid. The stronger your culture is and your client’s example of crushing the competition is great. They are clear about what the expectation is. You will get the ultra-competitive and the people that are fine to put in their 11 or 12 hours a day. The people that want to work six and a half hours a day are not going to survive and they’re going to self-select out.

That then begs the question of if I think it’s a cultural fit. Maybe it’s an issue of me not strongly defining the culture or standing for the culture that I want.

I’ve also worked for companies that have very loose or weak-defined cultures where we tolerate this wide spectrum of behaviors. A lot of people fit but they may not fit team to team because, without a strong company culture, you’re going to end up with these microcultures inside each team. If I’m working for you and it’s going great, and then I get promoted out of your team into a different team but that team has a different culture, I could be perceived to be not a fit.

COGE 253 | Failure
Failure: Without a strong company culture, you’re going to end up with these microcultures inside each team.


That would be a team culture piece. It is not necessarily a company culture because we may not have a strong enough company culture. The personal moral piece that you were talking about at the end like, “What’s going on in our personal lives,” is the piece I see a lot of leaders steer away from. There’s still this belief in our industry that we’re one person at home and one person at work. It’s not been my experience. I am one person and whatever’s going on at home is affecting how I show up at work.

The reverse is true. If I’m on a super tight deadline, there have been days that I have slept in job site trailers and not come home to my family because of what’s going on at work, late work, or early turnover. The work impacts my family and my family impacts the work. As leaders, if you aren’t willing to dive into this and explore what outside of these four walls is impacting your ability to show up here and how we can support you through that, you’re missing a big piece of the puzzle. It makes people hide more.

I want to talk about the personal thing because I’ve seen this in a number of different situations. In my life, I can remember working at a company many years ago when I was going through some personal issues. The owner of the company showed incredible support to me. I reflect on that and I think some of that support was based on our personal relationship. It also was based on the fact that he knew that I was a good performer but my performance had been dipping because of my personal issues.

I can think of another example where there was someone dealing with personal issues in their lives and I was looking at them from the outside. I would have fired the guy but that is not what happened. The loyalty that the company showed to this individual was rewarded. As an owner, this is one of the issues. I’ve got someone with personal issues. I understand that but when do I begin to draw the line? How do I determine, “We’ve tried. It’s not working. It’s time to move on?”

I go back to the couple of conversations like we need to put at what’s at stake. You can have the conversation of like, “Help me understand what’s going on in your world. This is what we’ve got to do from a business perspective. How can we marry the two? What pieces are you able to tackle? Where do we need to add support? Are you even able to engage in this right now?”

Sometimes, people are going through huge health crises or massive changes in personal relationships, a kid’s medical diagnosis, or an aging parent. There is so much stuff that we’re dealing with. You may need to go part-time. I’ve had a number of these little moments in my career as well. My automatic assumption as an employee is that my only choice is to work full-time at 80 hours a week or quit. My employee perspective is like, “If I can’t give it my all, then I need to quit my job.”

I hang on because I’ve got all these demands going on. I’ve got kids to raise and bills to pay. Quitting is not an option. I try to hang on to this full-time position. I know I’m failing. They can see I’m failing. I’m a mess. I’m doing my best to put on a brave face every day and show up at work. I’ve had leaders that have noticed that, have come to me, and been like, “There are other options. Help me understand what you’re dealing with as much as you’re willing to disclose and I will let you know where we can meet you in that.”

That’s the leader’s job, especially in this industry because there are so few examples of anything other than full-time or nothing. The employees aren’t even thinking that modifications are an option. As a business owner, if you can job share, give them part-time work, move them into a different part of the organization, or maybe you take them off the $50 million project and you give them a couple of $500,000 projects, they may not even know that these options are available. That’s the first conversation to explore.

I went in one time ready to quit my job because I couldn’t deal with the demands of my personal life that was happening. My leader said, “Why don’t you take a six-month leave of absence? You don’t need to quit. We’ll give you six months. You go figure out life. Your job will be here when you come back.” I never even thought about that. It allowed them to put somebody that could perform my job. They knew I was a good performer. That conversation created this loyalty bond between me and my leader in that organization. If they called me tomorrow and said, “We’ve got this thing,” I would seriously consider it because that created much trust and loyalty.

I want to flip it a little bit and think from the point of view of the person who’s failed. Let’s say I’m in a company. The results of the division or the project that I’m responsible for haven’t been up to par. I begin to feel the ground shifting underneath my feet. Perhaps the way that I walk into the executive meeting and the president who used to smile and say, “Hi,” is a little more reserved. I’m not sure where I stand. If I’m working in a company, let’s say, I’m not going to go start my gig or anything like that. I want to have some understanding of where my career is going. How should I talk to the people I report to when I begin to see the ground shifting underneath me?

I am a huge believer in personal responsibility. Like the leaders going to go through this checklist of, “Are they competent? Is there a fit? What’s going on in your personal life,” as individuals, we also need to make that same diagnosis. “Do I have the skills for this? Is there a gap? Where might I need support that I haven’t been asking for? Where might I need to build a relationship that I haven’t been putting effort into?”Our brain is going to want to keep us surviving. It’s going to shy away from the conversation that we need to have.

I already know I’m not delivering. I’m trying to hide it because my brain is trying to keep me safe. My brain is going, “Hold on a little bit longer. You’ll get through this. It’ll be okay. Nobody needs to know.” I can remember those moments, conversations, and self-talk that’s like, “Grin and bear it. You’ll get through this. It’ll be okay. Somehow, some way, this will work out.”

When we notice ourselves in those moments, that’s the invitation to do this little self-reflection and go, “I might need some skill building in difficult conversations or negotiations because I’m getting walked all over in these buyout processes.” I might need some executive support to come in with this one particularly difficult trade that seems to be running roughshod over the project.

That’s where those conversations, if you’re willing to put your hand up into, that say, “I can see the writing on the wall. I’m feeling uneasy and uncertain. Here’s what’s going on. This is my assessment of it. What do you see?” That’s a trust-building conversation right there. The executive doesn’t have to wonder, “Are they going to pull it together? Are they going to fix this? Where is this going to go?” You’ve invited them to be a part of the solution. You’re in it together.

How do I process failure if I’ve never experienced it before? What I mean by that is let’s say I started as a project engineer out of school and got promoted in a few years to project manager. Now I’m a project executive, and then all of a sudden, either I’ve reached my ceiling of competency or something happens in the business, and I experience failure. How do I process that?

Fortunately, those networks in our brain that process failure are no different than our physical muscles. If we’ve never used them before, they’re going to be very atrophied and weak. You might need a coach or third-party support, whether that’s a psychologist, a therapist, or something like that. The first step is to recognize that there is an opportunity to build some capacity. You can look at failure as like, “I failed. This is the end. It’s over.” It’s a fixed mindset or you can look at failure as like, “I’ve reached my ceiling in this arena. If I want to get to that next level, this is an opportunity for me to grow and build some resilience and muscles.”

If we’re the leaders of the construction company and we’ve noticed that, “Joe’s been here for 25 years. He just experienced his first failure. We’re going to need to support Joe through that because Joe is a good guy and he wants to keep going. We’re going to get him some support,” whether that’s a coach, third party, maybe some training, or whatever that looks like. If you’re the individual, you get to make a choice. Do you want to stay stuck and look at failures like, “This is as far as I can go,” which is that fixed mindset, or, “Here’s my opportunity to build some new skill. Let’s see what I can learn out of this process?” It’s a growth mindset. It’s up to the individual as to how they want to approach that.

It’s interesting because it’s such a two-way street. I can hear the individual who’s failed saying, “It’s easy for you guys to say but you don’t know what my boss is like.” The boss said, “That would be great if everyone had that fixed mindset but somehow, these people who report to me, sometimes don’t tell me the truth. They’re not open and transparent.” If you go into life understanding that human beings are not perfect, then that can help you to process through. When I say human beings are not perfect, I mean you, as well as everybody else.

We’re all perfectly imperfect. I’ve come to understand that our perfectionism is part of our armor to protect ourselves. People who haven’t failed in their lives often keep themselves in arenas that they know they can perform as part of their way of keeping themselves safe. As leaders, when we’re looking to promote people into new and different arenas, we need to be having this failure conversation with them like, “Failure is a part of learning.”

Let’s talk about that. This is a good camper on the conversation. Failure often happens when someone gets promoted. Maybe a new project type comes in or something like that. How do I set the stage as a leader for helping my people deal with failure and process it in a healthy way?

I go back to raising these little children and now that they are teenagers. When our kids are first learning to walk, how many times do they take two wobbly steps, fall, and get back up? They don’t fail 50 times and go, “I’m going to be one of those kids that don’t walk.” They keep trying. It’s like riding a bike without training wheels on it. There’s much growth that happens in our children. Around the time we push them out of the nest and they start to go into the workforce, that’s when I’m starting to see this mindset shift like, “I have to have all my ducks in a row and my poop together. I have to be ‘competent.’ I’m not allowed to fail anymore because I’m supposed to be an adult.”

It’s like, “We’re promoting you to this position. We fully expect that you will come across situations you have never faced before. If you try to do them on your own, the likelihood of you failing is high. If you come to us and say, ‘I’ve never done this before. What do you suggest? Here’s what I’m thinking,’ the likelihood of failures probably going to drop a little bit.”

We still might have a few bumps in the road but we fully expect that in this first project in this new role or this first six months, you’re going to have a lot of learning and growth. There’s going to be a lot of failures. Hopefully, none of them are catastrophic but each and every one of them is going to teach you something that you need to learn as part of this new role. You set the expectations that we expected.

I’ve had this conversation and it’s funny because people will be like, “I’ve got this. I know how to do this. Failure doesn’t apply to me. I’m good.” Three months later, they’re back in my office like, “You were right. I’ve never done this. That went horribly. How do I fix this?” For the people who want to grow, do more, and are looking to move in their careers, failure is a natural part of that.

Let me ask you this last question. Many times, the failures that we see in ourselves when we see them in others, we can either respond with sympathy or judgmentalism. It’s interesting because the thing that gets us the most angry about what other people do is exactly what we do. How do I become conscious of that as a leader? How do I keep that at the top of my mind when I’m working with people who are perhaps in new roles or going through challenges so that I’m able to show that empathy that you talked about at the beginning of the episode?

It’s exactly what you said. It’s being self-aware of our self-judgment. What I often have clients that I’m working with do is write a list of where they judge themselves the harshest. What bars, measures, or exacting standards do they hold themselves to that if they don’t measure up, they’re beating themselves up on? Those are the areas that you’re going to be the harshest in your team.

One of my biggest weaknesses in an area where I don’t hold myself to an exacting standard is in detail orientation. I will often have a spelling mistake in a slide or miss a period in a report and that kind of thing. I don’t hold myself to that exacting standard. When other people pointed it out to me, I’m like, “Thank God you found it. You saved me there.”

Being on time, showing up early, and being prepared are the areas I hold myself to an exacting standard. If somebody isn’t on the call two minutes before they’re supposed to be on the call, I already think they’re late. I’m like, “Where are you? Why are you being disrespectful?” I got to watch that because I’m like, “Not everybody thinks five minutes early is on time.” Become aware of where you judge yourself and have these exacting standards for yourself because that’s what’s going to play out in your relationships.

We’re having a conversation here and it’s something that you have to process through and get lots of practice. It’s a deep challenge because we’re dealing with human beings. The more aware you are of your weaknesses and the more perhaps you’ve been shown grace in your life, you can then show that to others but that’s not always guaranteed.

It’s a practice in shifting our thought process. It can start with little things like the person in front of you in the coffee lineup was a bit indecisive and you got short-tempered with them. “Did I need to react in that way? I could have chosen to do this. Take a deep breath and realize it was okay. Maybe they’re dealing with something else.” It’s in those small moments that we choose to practice noticing our reaction or response.

The reaction is when we’re on our automatic default thinking. Our response is when we get to choose how we want to behave in that moment. That’s the practice. The leaders and the individuals who are practicing pausing and responding are likely to have better relationships and outcomes because they are choosing how they want to impact people and their circumstances. Those out there who continue to react to situations are not able to influence in the same way.

Let’s summarize here. Give us 1, 2, or 3 bullet points that we can walk away with to help us improve at working with our people as they’re going through failure.

First and foremost, normalize failure. It’s a part of the learning process. If any part of your team or organization is going through growth, failure is going to be a part of that. You got to talk about it. As adults, we have to hear it 10 times in 10 different ways before it starts to sink in. You have to talk about it, demonstrate, share, and show it all the time as a leader. You have to recognize that when people do fail, there is an emotional component that you are going to have to allow them to express.

If you don’t allow them to express it, it’s likely going to fester and could negatively impact their ability to stay and grow. Whereas if you allow the expression, you may not even have to do anything with it. It’s going to allow it to move through them and now they can get to the other side. That’s the thing that is leaders, we need to stop being afraid of the emotion. It doesn’t mean people are broken or they’re incapable of performing. It means they’re a human being and having a human experience because we all have emotions. Their expression of that might look different than your expression but it doesn’t make it any less valid.

Tell us more about your work, who you work with, and how people can get in touch with you.

Thanks for the invitation. I work with teams and leaders, specifically developing empathy skills predominantly around having difficult conversations and building trust. We talked a lot about that. Also, I help teams and individuals develop into high-performance teams and self-reliant achievers. I do that through group settings, one-on-one coaching, and training. The best place to start is probably my website at www.ErinThorp.ca or connect with me on LinkedIn. That would be an easy place too.

Erin, I enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for joining us.

Thanks a lot, Eric.

Thank you for reading my interview with Erin. I hope this will help you to be more effective at handling failure in the lives of the people who report to you, being a little more empathetic, and working through those issues. Feel free to visit Erin’s website to learn more about her and share this interview with other people who you think would benefit.

One last final request is to go out to wherever you get your shows, whether it be on Spotify or Apple. Give us a review and rating. If you think we have to earn a five-star review, give us that five-star review. The reason is that it helps us to be seen across the internet and gives more people the opportunity to read these killer interviews. Thank you so much for reading. We’ll catch you on the next episode.


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About Erin Thorp

COGE 253 | FailureErin Thorp is an empathic keynote speaker, writer, and coach for leaders who struggle with conflict, communication, and performance during high-stress times. She supports leaders in navigating difficult conversations, building powerful teams, and communicating with empathy so they can lead confidently.

Having spent 20 years in the masculine-dominated engineering and construction industries leading teams and delivering projects, Erin had taken notice that her colleagues were highly skilled and cared deeply about their work, but most were incapable of fully holding their own emotions and, therefore, unable to hold the emotions of others. After being told time and time again she was “too emotional,” and to “pull herself together,” she realized there was a big gap in what was being taught to technical leaders. She knew that skills often categorized as “soft” — connection, empathy, vulnerability — are actually the most difficult to learn but are key to creating leaders who make an impact at home, at work, and in the world.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Erin did even more self-reflecting and observed the way leaders were treating their employees. Whether they were large corporations, or entrepreneurs, she noticed the same patterns, and ultimately decided to take the matter into her own hands. Erin is now running her leadership business full-time.

In 2017 she authored Inside Out Empathy, a book inspired by her career and journey as a mother, and explores using the superpower of empathy to build effective teams. She believes that there is a leader in everyone and frequently shares her knowledge as a speaker and facilitator at a variety of events such as the Vancouver Regional Construction Association Leadership Forum, and the Women Building Futures Conference, to name a couple. She has also provided workshops and Keynotes for corporations such as WNORTH, Atlas Gas, ATCO Energy, Cenouvous Energy, and Schneider Electric.

Erin holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Calgary. She is an Associate Certified Coach through Integral Coaching Canada and a Certified Mental Fitness Coach through Positive Intelligence. She currently resides in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with her husband and their three children. In her spare time, she enjoys curling up with a book, spending time outdoors, and cooking with her family.